Friday, August 28, 2009

Questions Along The Razor's Edge

I just finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel, The Razor’s Edge, first published in 1943 but still very relevant in its study of human nature and spiritual longings. Maugham takes his title from an Upanishads quote: The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.

The story that unfolds is told by a first-person narrator whom one presumes to be Maugham himself, and centers around three well-defined characters: Larry Darrell, a winsome young spiritual sojourner completely absent of materialistic longings; his one-time fiancée Isabel Maturin, who never stops loving Larry even though her needs for a cushy lifestyle and a respectable reputation overpower this longing; and the unflappable socialite Elliott Templeton, who spends a lifetime building the right connections and attending the best of Parisian and British gatherings, only to find himself forgotten and lonely at the end of a life built along a rope of sand.

Maugham’s narrative spans about two decades, taking the reader through the heart of the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression. We see the characters grow and develop to a degree, but in the end they have become more fully entrenched in the context they sought to cultivate at the beginning of the story. Larry (who has less page time than the other main characters, interestingly) has his spiritual peace in the midst of his simplicity; Isabel her comfortable (if romantically unsatisfying) suburban life after riding out the Depression in Europe with her family; and Elliott his one final, high-society party invitation (although a forgery), which he declines because of his impending death.

What seems particularly timeless about Maugham’s story of nearly 70 years ago is the questions he subtly poses through the interplay of the characters. What truly makes for a satisfying life? How does one hold spiritual restlessness and material pragmatism in dynamic tension? To what extent should others define who we must be and what we should do?

And, a final question, perhaps: What sharp edges of the razor are we sidestepping, consciously or not?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Four: An Artistic Life

Songs from my youth and college years in particular bring memories, pleasant and painful, back to life with present-moment emotions. This has contributed toward a weird but humorous talent, particularly with 1980s pop, for recalling not only the year a song came out but what specifically was going on in my life at the time. People often try to stump me or challenge the veracity of my claims, but the vast majority of the time I am right. Once while on a convention trip in the Music City of Nashville (before it became my home), a record label publicist challenged my answer of a certain song’s debut year. I dared her to walk next door to a large music store, where I pointed out the correct date on the CD in front of an entire group of colleagues and she had to concede defeat.

I often find that my favorite songs on a CD are the ones that were not considered “commercial” enough to be released to radio. These tend to be the longer, ballad-like and introspective cuts, where the artist is most vulnerable. On these tracks I feel the artist or band is singing to me, because in essence they are.

The fact that these tunes tend not to be popularized is just one example of how I have felt like a misfit in a world that typically devalues artists in general. Many will nod admiration at their talents, but simultaneously casts aside their relevance with a smile; a roll of the eyes; a silence; or even a harshness.

Perhaps this is the best that most people can muster, in a society where each breaking dawn demands of us the tasks we must accomplish, the problems we must solve, and the relationships we must manage. This grind leaves little space for the reflections offered by true artistry. Without intentionally seeking to stem this tyranny of the urgent (and the urgency of well-meaning tyrants), such demands gradually erode the remnants of our childlike desires to dream, imagine and soar.

So caught up in doing that there is little room for being, we gradually lose our appetite for those eternal truths. Instead, we settle for the cheap, fleeting imitations of what we assume to be a fulfilling life because no one else is particularly alarmed by its shallow waters.

Hints of eternal truths are found, I believe, when the soul of another touches our own. Truth is calling when tears spring up in our eyes, when our hearts race, when chills traverse along our spines. Truth invades us when we create space for critical thinking, and no longer suppress for the sake of blind duty the natural flow of emotions.

In my lifelong quest to unveil the deeper dimensions of such truth, I have observed that few things communicate it as powerfully and effectively as not just music but all forms of art. Without the regular nourishment of creative expressions, I feel starved into mediocrity. I descend into bitter normalcy. Life feels bordered by zero lot lines; a sprawling, generic suburbia. It becomes reduced to “a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare’s King Lear gloomily expressed.

But when I give myself permission to catch but a glimpse of the eternal truths and be changed, I sense new vitality and energy.

The artists of times past and present stand ready to speak vestiges of eternal truths to each of us. We must, I assert, accept their generous invitation while cautiously sorting these vestiges from the brokenness.

When we creak open the shutters of drudgery, we blink our eyes and see ourselves in the pale, horrified yearning of the androgen portrayed by Edvard Munch in his painting The Scream. The cry appears much more than an expression of individual discontent and mourning. It seems to penetrate all of surrounding nature, perhaps all of society. It is a silent plea for people to recognize each other’s humanity, embrace justice, choose love, care for children, refuse to miss life passing by. It is the scream of each of our hearts, and remains silent as long as we are anesthetized by apathy, mediocrity and duty.

Upon taking the risk of dreaming again, we drink in the majesty of Michelangelo’s magnum opus sculpture David. Israel’s greatest king stands poised for battle, geared for love, contemplative of his self-doubts and mistakes. He stands before history as Every Person, embodying the best and worst of the human heart. We stare at David and see ourselves, teeming with unrealized and actualized potential, amazed at how we can hold aspirations for heaven and hell in such dynamic tension.

When we glance up from the want ads or Horoscopes long enough to roll our eyes across Dylan Thomas’ immortal poem Fern Hill, we travel back to the time when we too were green and unaware of our gradual dying. We slowly recognize aspects we have allowed to slouch toward an early demise, and also see what remains green, untapped, virgin, hopeful, exploding with the ability to be recreated.

As we get past our tacit approval of the ignorance that reduces life to a cacophony of role-playing, we embrace the skeptical eyes of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and allow the simple best of life to be our goal. We are less and less tolerant of facade and pretense and sheer human greed. We desire to prevent our children from careening off of fields of hope into caverns of cynicism.

When we duck out of the office and into the theater, we yearn with Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables for fate to “Bring Him Home.” We share his love for Cosette and his desire to outrace his sins and become a new person. When we watch The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock float meaninglessly in the pool to the words of Simon and Garfunkel, we too refuse to be painted into a corner or boarded up in a box.

When we allow it to be more than a temporary panacea to loneliness, music connects one heart to another. “Evergreen” and “The Rose” remind us of love’s pain and deliverance, while “My Heart Will Go On” and “Georgia” drive home its transcendence. As I have said, the music of our upbringing still delivers the lessons and emotions of its initial hearing when we stumble across it decades later. It flavors the epochs of our lives, causing us to yearn for “Seasons in the Sun.” Even if the Italian language escapes us, an operatic solo touches something beyond verbal and cultural barriers, as effectively as a smile or a hug.

We are not all artists in the same regard as those who give us such lasting works via the toil of talents mixed with passion, sweat, pain and contradictions. We can all, however, live an artistic life, leaving just enough space for art to touch and transform us. Perhaps it is not a question of “can” but “must,” in order to remain fully alive before we have been buried.

The arts round us out as individuals. They engrave our distinctions. They shout fragments of truth to us when we have grown dull in hearing it for ourselves.

And in a world of descending grays and irrelevancy, we are desperately in need of authenticity. Hopefully, we gradually learn to place artistic influences into the context of what our thirst for truth ultimately represents.

As a child, then a teenager and finally as a college student, I tried myself to write lyrics that conveyed a sense of truth and a desire to fully love; rather just than a passion for self. I wrote hundreds of them, and still have them in my attic.

No one has ever heard these songs performed. The fact that they exist on paper, however, gives me a certain satisfaction that I had the perseverance to own the inner melodies and write them down; that I had the hope to help people push through the irrelevancy and taste something real. To taste a love more lasting than a sexual high.

These youthful lyrics reveal, I hope, that just enough residue of the image of God remained within me while coming of age to enable grace to persevere. That someday I would more fully trade desire for what was fleeting for surrender to what is eternal.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Fickle Electorate and the First Celebrity-in-Chief

A new poll depicts that 49 percent of Americans possess a large amount of confidence in President Obama's leadership, as opposed to more than 60 percent at the President’s 100th day in office around the beginning of May. The conventional thinking is that the rigors of the heated health care debate, and little gaffes here and there such as the whole “Beer Summit” episode, have gradually scratched some of the bloom off of the rose. But I see a larger dynamic at work: the predictable, very American dismantling of the cult of celebrity that has surrounded Obama from the start—and which, for the longest time, served his gain.

Obama is a person equipped with enormous talents: remarkable intelligence; eloquent speaking gifts; persuasive passion; pragmatic ideas; and a compelling life story and background. These attributes combined with the ubiquitous power of social media dovetailing with a widespread disdain of the Republican leadership to sweep the first-term Senator to a landslide victory last November. Obama’s rise was meteoric, catalyzed by a rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he was still a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and taken to new heights when he launched his presidential campaign just two years after being sworn into his seat. It’s hard to recall any President in modern times being elected after such a short span within the public consciousness. Jimmy Carter (perhaps not the most favorable analogy for Obama) comes the closest.

Our culture loves to create celebrities out of once-obscure individuals. We have lived and breathed this through our 15-years-and-running fascination with reality television shows, in particular. Paris Hilton is just one example of someone famous for no particular reason other than inheriting fame and fortune. The various bachelors, bachelorettes, island survivors and other winners/losers fill out the rest of the case. We have created a whole new genre of celebrity, those famous for simply being famous but adding little to the advancement of any particular profession or social need.

And just as we love to build up and celebrate these nouveau popular, we take particular sport in tearing them down as soon as they dare to be as human as the rest of us: making occasional mistakes; changing an earlier position on something; having a slip of the tongue; and straying too far out of their own lane…or—and this is most common with the reality show-molded celebs for sure—revealing they had less actual talent than we first believed.

Obama is currently caught in that tearing down phase, whether he recognizes it or not. He has gone from being the underdog to the establishment, fairly or not, and is daily absorbing the rhetoric of both the left and the right. The press likes him more than they did Bill Clinton at this point in the first year, but the media love fest of all things Obama is starting to grow stale as well. This is but the first crucial season in his presidency where we shall see if those great talents can fuel the political savvy to achieve tangible results on key issues, results that a majority of Americans find acceptable.

And such political savvy cannot be underestimated. For all of his assets, the key gap that Obama brought into the White House was the lack of executive experience. Having never served as a governor or even a mayor of a city. Obama does not have the battle-hardened skills of a big picture leader who had to contend with various factions and find ways to unify them enough to haggle key compromises that moved issues forward. Clinton was a dogged survivor across eight years in Washington because of his long executive journey in Arkansas coupled with strategically building relationships with Beltway insiders long before running for president. By contrast, Obama’s two full-time years in the Senate, before spending the next two almost exclusively on the campaign trail, was scarcely enough time to forge deep bonds with Democrats and Republicans alike, Blue Dogs and evangelicals and all the other subcategories, in order to truly be able to count on their sustainable partnership. Combine this with the public’s short experience with Obama and its proclivity to destroy celebrities as quickly as it creates them, and you have the state of our first Celebrity-in-Chief as he moves toward autumn after a blistering summer.

If there’s a key takeaway here that I want to emphasize, it’s the need for Americans to demonstrate more responsibility in embracing day-to-day opportunities to be leaders themselves—in their families; in neighborhoods; in business; with civic and religious groups; at city hall and the county commission chambers. Too often the average American abdicates his or her citizenry to the “official” leader—and even more so when that leader has been clothed in the cult of celebrity. We create celebrities to vicariously represent our own deepest longings, and rip them to shreds when we focus on their faults to the neglect of our own deepest shortcomings.

I would almost see Obama as a victim placed upon this pedestal by a fickle electorate only to be gradually pushed off, were it not for the fact that he sought out the highest office in the land so quickly into his federal tenure. We must be careful what we wish for. I wonder if Obama’s gifts could be more impactful in a different arena, such as heading a powerful non-profit or being a macro-organizer for numerous communities across the country. Washington-based politics is so mired in partisanship, special interests and the specter of re-election, that even the most gifted and well-intentioned person will fall far short of their aspirations. It is a broken, rotted system, and has left me with little faith in either major political party.

But I still believe that real people can make a difference—Obama included, I hope. But, even more importantly, you and I and those around us at this very moment represent true change we can believe in. The non-celebrities, unknown to the masses but potentially famous within their own ranks for making things happen that truly and relevantly address human and community needs…these are the ones who don’t ride the rollercoaster of public adoration/disgust, but steadily hedgehog their way forward.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Three: Drop Our Swords

A childhood immersed in imagination, fantasy and disengagement paved the way for a writing hobby and vocation, which has sometimes elicited the real acclaim of flesh-and-blood persons and placed food on my table.

Writing has provided a sense of vocational, almost transcendent purpose that clings to me like a shadow, and formed the basis for the public speaking that came to fruition in my 30s. It has been God’s enduring gift to me for decades, a talent I cannot fully explain but can only respond to, refine and turn loose on whomever is willing to read or listen.

The use of words, at first only written but spoken in recent years as well, has continued to bubble up to the surface from the depths of my heart and subconscious. I typed as a child, as I type now, with fury and purpose, blocking out distractions. My father’s boss once visited our home and saw me in the word zone with that far-away stare, and asked Dad, “What’s he writing in there?” My father simply replied, “I don’t know, but I think it’s good.”

I did not then, and still do not, fully understand grammar and cannot define all of its components in a technical sense. But a talent emerged that instinctively knew how to put words together in the right fashion, and only intensified as I placed it into practice and allowed it to develop into a strength. In recent years I have modified a key line from the outstanding 1981 film Chariots of Fire, telling others, “God gave me words, and when I write I feel his pleasure.”

Many others besides my Dad have at times found these words I produce bizarre, or the effort to construct them less productive than other pursuits. I have sometimes raged against my stubborn talent in strange complicity with the cynics, chasing after more immediate satisfactions.

Perhaps good films, books, comics, plays and other forms of art simply touch a natural part of us that is indigenous to being made in the image of a creative God; even when, for some, that God remains temporarily unknown.

What I do know is that as a boy I became captivated by certain stories, and ever since then have wanted to hear, read, see and write other stories. I have mostly fought against the powerful tide that seems to insist little boys and girls must grow up, and leave their stories behind to find more practical things to do. Swimming in the opposite direction of much of the culture often leads me to encounter cold currents of loneliness, and I have learned as an adult that most “artist” types can relate.

My fiction writing, in contrast to my parallel universe writing, formally began around 1979 when I stumbled across comic books while on vacation with my family at a Kentucky hotel.

Issue 227 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk was, ironically enough, about a psychologist’s effort to help the Hulk claim his own identity. The Hulk is the ultimate anti-hero, forever pursued by the authorities and all sorts of strange alien creatures. He is the alter ego of meek scientist Bruce Banner, who was caught in a “gamma ray” explosion that transformed his cells in a manner that makes him the Hulk whenever he gets angry or anxious. In a sense, the image of God in Banner became overtaken by the image of a beast.

For several years I read every Hulk, riding my bike with change in my pocket to a local convenience store each month to buy the new issue. I created a comic book series of my own, conveniently called The Amazing Kong and imitation in its most blatant, if flattering, form. Another comic series I authored was called Star Notes, and it is not hard to guess the source of inspiration. A few other comic series were original enough, such as “Digital Jim,” who was half-man and half-robot and, aside from that, just a nice, normal guy like me. I drew the pictures and supplied the dialogue, from cover to cover.

My drawing of comic books and characters caught the eye of teachers who decided I was a budding artist and enrolled me in a special class called “Super Art.” But I did not have the patience for fine-tuning any would-be art skills, and drew pictures only as a means to an end: to tell what I hoped would be compelling drama. For years I decorated the title pages of my stories with artwork, but only to represent the something greater I felt was in the pages to follow.

A step beyond comic books, and a further unleashing of the words that could not easily flow from my lips but found life upon paper, was the production of homemade “books.”

These were first written with my sloppy penmanship, and later hastily composed with my succession of typewriters. From around age 10 or 11 until I was nearing 16, I cranked out 15 “novels.” Perhaps this can be viewed as quite prolific for someone that young, but I am not overly impressed with myself since none in my opinion are of publishable quality. In recent months I have come across notes I saved for an additional 12 or 15 book projects, most of which I started but never completed. Given enough time, there seems to be no limit to the amount of words I can write; whether they are good words is another perspective.

My first of these books was Ghost Castle. Its cover sports the silhouette of a headless knight galloping on what resembles a dragon more than a horse, plus an outline of a valiant man in armor dueling with an unseen foe. A large, gray “castle,” with multi-colored ornamentation, two windows that look like omniscient eyes and a triple crown beset with green flags rounds out the artwork. Under the title is “By John De Marco.” The back cover offers a terrifying portrait of “Og the Fire God.” Internal drawings depict the three main characters and a battle scene.

The storyline: Two knights, “Flash” and “Saturn,” are warned by a ghost that people in the community are scared and troubled. To find out why, they need to journey to Ghost Castle and inquire of Og on how to “help restore freedom to the kingdom.”

Along the way to this presumably haunted edifice, Flash and Saturn encounter a headless horseman who is slashing down one knight after another. The horseman escapes, and the knights proceed with their inquiry of Og. It is the horseman who troubles the people, Og explains, who “makes them scared of the dark and afraid to leave the house, and makes them scared of everything, including their children.” After freeing an imprisoned king in the depths of the castle, Flash encounters the horseman, scrapping with him until he cuts the headless villain to the ground. And so the story ends.

Flipping through the words across the pages, I note how childhood prose can be quite amusing, especially where the obvious is emphasized: “The ghost was creepy…” “and at the top, no head (a description of the headless horseman)…” “Come back here! (Flash and Saturn as they chased the headless horseman)…” “it was a dreary and haunted place (a description of Ghost Castle)…” Ah, the innocence of a fresh mind, unscathed by maturity.

I suppose I felt the story was just too compelling to let it end there, and I am sure the literary critics agreed. So, soon after this epic work came its sequel, Ghost Castle: Part II. (I believe my opening day sales record stood until the first Harry Potter sequel, but I cannot prove this.) This book’s cover simply depicts a tall, green castle; interestingly decked with a cross at the top that gives off a powerful green light. On the back cover is an action shot of a knight swinging from a platform suspended in mid-air, to some sort of extension housed by the castle.

This book, like its predecessor, was written by hand on half-sheets of legal paper and sewn together by my mother. The sequel’s action picks up where the first story ended, re-telling the fight scene to compound anticipation. The horseman having died, Flash swings to a different castle (because the first one disappears into thin air, which I suppose is what happens when castle owners fail to pay their mortgages), and stumbles across the astonishing discovery that the headless horseman is the ghost of a knight whose head was blown off by a cannonball. Even more stunning: this dead knight was no less than Flash’s own uncle! I am sure that only the fact that this book was written before The Empire Strikes Back prevented me from adding the dialogue, “Flash, I am your uncle.”

The next staggering event is the death of Og, the Fire God. After death, however, Og continues to address the knights from beyond the grave, a la Obi-Won Kenobi of Star Wars. The story culminates in a final battle between Flash and the headless ghost, wherein each finally throws down his sword and realizes the other is a relative. “They saluted each other. Happiness was in the kingdom again,” the sequel concludes.

There was a girl in my third-grade class named Jennifer, to whom my new friend Tommy wrote a love letter during class one day. Our teacher, the gray-haired Mrs. Rainey, intercepted the note and did something that even my eight-year-old mind knew was wrong: She told the class about it! Jennifer started to cry, and I think Tommy wanted to die.

Most of us laughed, but even while chuckling I sort of wished I could have been the one to write the note. More importantly, I was stunned in my own naïve way that our teacher had embarrassed Tommy in such a manner before our little classroom community. What was she thinking? Why did she have to be so cruel? I did not have the words or understanding to put it this way in those days, but there was a substantial lack of grace, mercy or compassion in Mrs. Rainey’s decision.

I have often wondered whether she created some scars in young Tommy that day, a touch of fear that may have haunted him into adulthood. I never got to ask him and I do not recall us ever talking about this incident; but Tommy continues to haunt the memories of my childhood like a ghost in a castle. I am sure Mrs. Rainey is long since deceased, but I would love to ask her why she had such a lack of empathy toward that young boy. I wonder why she did not view him like one of her own children, if she any.

Why don’t people in general treat each other more like fellow journeyers in the same three-act-play of brokenness and hope; trying to get life right but often getting it wrong?

We share the same human conditions. Like Flash and the headless horseman, we would oppose each other a lot less if we realize we are all related in some deeper sense, that ultimately we are children of the same loving God. We are each trying in our own manner to grapple with loneliness, find our hidden talents, unveil our identities and make an effort for the world to take notice and be transformed.

What a daily wonder society could be if we mustered more of the courage and character to drop our swords and salute, instead of condemn one another; to offer grace instead of shame.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Two: Grains of Sand

The last time I saw my cousin Gina De Marco was at Christmas 1989, when we all made our way to my sister Fran’s house near Cleveland, Ohio, during one of the coldest holiday seasons on record. We had played together as children in a great big sandbox at Gina's house, but lost touch for many years after my family moved from Ohio to Florida. By the end of 1989 Gina was a beautiful 20-year-old with big brown eyes, attending college.

We had a great time during the visit. After flying home, catching a cold on the airplane and finishing what was left of my last Christmas break of my last year in college (and my last foray in the make-believe world before I had to launch myself into a real working life), I packed up my stuff and made the four-hour drive back to school in Tallahassee, Fla.

Shortly after arriving, a phone call from my brother informed me that Gina had died in an icy car crash that weekend in Ohio. And just like that, the last grains of imagined childhood innocence slipped through my fingers like fine sand, as quickly as Gina had slipped from life to death.

I spent that final semester of college haunted by the photos we had taken of Gina just 10 days or so before her death: hanging out in my sister’s living room, happy, perfectly healthy, well-adjusted to life. I clung to the distant mental images of the two of us playing in a sandbox as young children in the early 1970s, hanging out, happy, perfectly healthy, trying to adjust to childhood. Had it all been a dream?

While passing co-eds on campus—and there was no shortage of coeds at Florida State University—I would sometimes see her face. I threw my all into school that semester and earned a 4.0 in my classes to finish strong, and part of me was serving the effort as a tribute to Gina; my own private way of keeping her memory alive.

I have noticed ever since then that what is most precious to me is ever fleeting and already slipping through my fingers, even as I hold it before me: naked innocence; people; opportunities; happiness; and so forth. Every moment matters, and in my constant hurry to get to the distant future that could be I often fail to appreciate the current stretch of highway.

Even as I write this my oldest daughter is already just shy of 10 and my youngest a year away from starting kindergarten. I feel adoration for my little girls that resonates with that sense of falling into bliss for the first time, and this provides a taste of how God must feel about me. They are both full of life, perfectly healthy, trying to adjust.

I want to help them to understand and leverage who they are becoming, and find community and vital relationships; even as I continue to unwrap my own identity and seek to more fully thrive in my uniqueness. I do not want to let one grain of their precious childhood or innocence slip through my fingers. I want to hold all the sand in the palms of my hands, and keep eternity secured in the shelter of my passionate oversight. I cannot come to terms with even the potential of goodbyes when it concerns my little ones and their own big brown eyes.

But I know I cannot retain the grains any more than I can suspend the tides or predict the winds. I can only play hard and bring out as much joy and potential in them as possible, during whatever fleeting time we have to share together in the sandbox.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Coming of Age, Part One: Darkness and Grace

During the fall of 1973, innocently ignorant of Vietnam, the Watergate hearings and just what a fashion disaster the current decade was turning out to be, my thick glasses and I began our kindergarten journey at Butternut Elementary in North Olmstead, a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb.

My kindergarten teacher, Ms. Farmer, might have been the first authority figure to call me John instead of “Johnny.” I had always been Johnny until school, and then somehow morphed into John. Embracing my formal name in a sense formalized my slow ascent to adulthood, one small metaphor for letting go of innocence. Even though many in my family stuck with the endearing nickname, I became John in my mind and in some way was older because of this.

Shy, quiet, compliant and a lifetime away from daring to speak in public (or even in private), I do not remember much about my abbreviated time at Butternut except a green crayon incident. The crayon was the offending instrument I used the only time I got into trouble that year, one of the few times I have ever been in trouble in my life, period. I was sitting at a table with other children as we colored (what else?). For some insane reason, I felt the urge to take my green crayon and scribble all over the non-green drawing of the kid closest to me; my first memory of “deliberate” sin, I guess you could say.

As you might imagine the nameless child was aghast and started crying, calling out for Ms. Farmer. She took this in stride with her larger view of the relevance of such incidents but certainly did inform my mother, who expressed her surprise but did not dole out any meaningful punishment. My shame and embarrassment were enough; for the first time, I was the bad guy. (The Greek Furies of classical literature, which demand justice for the improper acts of mortals, got even with me years later when my first car was painted a nauseating green.)

It is a bit unnerving to consider the spontaneous cruelty welling up inside of me at that moment when I decided the world around me should be green. Was it a metaphor for some seething envy? It was not the last time I would experience such emotions. Sometimes in life I have just been…mad, wanting to lash out at those around me or toss out a spitball of spite, feeling some indefinable weight of injustice or the snare of some tightly-woven conspiracy intended to keep me mediocre.

If I have learned anything in nearly four decades of life, it is that the residual darkness I possess in the crevices of my soul will from time to time demand its hour upon the stage. My lingering efforts to develop and refine qualities such as character, discipline and maturity play a large part in determining to what extent the curtain rises or falls on its performance.

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Chuck Killian, once remarked, “Our only boast is in God’s mercy. Most of us will never get what we deserve. We’ll get grace.” And most of the time, grace has given shelter for my shame. An authentic response to such grace goes a long way toward gradually suffocating that internal darkness.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Hallway Fitness Monitors

The following short excerpt is available at

How BodyMedia Is Making Fitness Data Personal By: Kate RockwoodWed Jul 1, 2009 at 2:00 PM

Ivo Stivoric, 38, has developed wearable fitness sensors for clinical patients for more than a decade. Responding to demand, BodyMedia introduced its GoWear fit line for consumers last year.

"Doctors will tell you to eat better and exercise more, but they're not specialists in behavior modification. If you're on a treadmill, that's the only time you have a dashboard that's telling you concrete numbers. We provide people with dashboards for their bodies. On average, our users wear them for 16 hours a day.

Right now, we're just feeding you the data so you can make your own conclusions. Over time, fitness monitors will be able to feed back more proactive, personalized content. Imagine getting a message that the last time you went a certain numbers of days with little sleep, you got sick. We could even lower your home thermostat after sensing when you've fallen asleep. We're just now scratching the surface of what's possible."

Okay....I think this is really cool technology. And philosophically, whatever makes for a healthier populace--hey, who can complain?

But...if you need a 16-hour-per-day dashboard to remind you to sleep, what deeper questions about intentional living should you be asking yourself? I'm just saying...

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Instruction: The Ultimate Vacation Workout

Here's how it works. Your holiday travels to a coastal region will take you away from the gym for two entire weeks. Given the fact that you will be eating anything you want while executing very little mental activity, there is a strong risk that both your body and your brain will atrophy in two-part harmony.

This is not desirable. It is best to retain muscle mass in at least one of these dimensions, and for the sake of avoiding cruelty I am suggesting that you give yourself a break and allow the mind a temporary hiatus from higher-self development. That leaves us with the issue of the body, which begins to soften the moment you cross the state line and weakens even more in direct proportion to the number of miles between yourself and said gym.

Facing this dilemma while wandering the lovely beaches of Florida just recently, I came up with a workable solution. I jogged along the shoreline, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a nearly perfect world, until I reached the half-way point of the distance I had chosen to traverse. There, not looking around to see who was watching, I plopped myself into the thick sand and promptly did 15 push-ups. I performed two more identical sets, but in between did several stretching exercises as well. After the last of the push-ups, I concluded with a set of crunches.

Then, pleased with my efforts and glistening with sweat and sand, I trudged my way back to the shoreline and waded into the ocean. There, the foamy waves cascaded over me and cleansed me of all itchiness and debris, and I emerged feeling healthy and alive. I ran back to re-join my family, which was sharing joy, fun and a season in the sun.

I repeated this nearly every day I was at the beach across a two-week expanse. I ate whatever I wanted, and felt no guilt. And the only mental activity I allowed myself was reading a couple novels, writing a few blogs and checking Facebook. Okay, I guess only the novels and the blogs count in this regard...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Skeptical About Sequels

Some books just do not need sequels. Most, as a matter of fact. And let's not even talk about movies at this point.

During my recent vacation I read a delightful novel called Love Walked In, by Marisa de los Santos. Very tight character development, featuring a few key personalities with whom you could really get involved. It was one of those books that is harder to put down the closer you get to the end. Imagine my joyful anticipation when I learned there was a sequel, and my assumption was that the author would take me deeper into these three lovely characters I had grown to love. This author, after all, could be trusted!

And then came my disdain that Belong to Me--part two--continued the key original characters but tried to force me to like a whole new set of other people on equal footing. The book screamed, "Care about these people!" And I just could not care.

The experience of reading the sequel was not quite as devastating as seeing Grease 2 or Stayin' Alive, but it was close. Throw in a couple of ridiculous plot twists near the end that made at least one of the original characters less likable, and the reader finds himself feeling a bit yucky and wishing Dr. de los Santos had chosen to write something else. Sometimes too much of a good thing really is too much.

My general sense is that works of science fiction, fantasy or mystery are best geared toward sequels or series. I loved each Harry Potter book more than its predecessor. Chronicles of Narnia--check. J.R.R. Tolkien's works--ditto. But for some reason--and this is just my perspective--stories about real, everyday people that touch the human heart in a profound manner are perfect just as they are. There is no need to add to or take away. Let them live forever in the crucible of a final page count.

I'm sure at least J.D. Salinger agrees with me.

Perhaps de los Santos will crank out another novel before long. She has a brilliant mind, and I would love to partake in more of her imagination. But if I read the book jacket and see the names of familiar characters, the story for that day will be John Walked Out...of the bookstore!